On a recent afternoon, a large white van pulled up to a red brick building on the outskirts of Dnepropetrovsk, a city in eastern Ukraine. A woman with a plump face and dark eyes stepped out. She smiled hesitantly, looking out at one of several newly built transit centres for displaced Ukrainian Jews.
The driver of the van took care of her bags, unloading a pile of cheap plastic suitcases. The woman, accompanied by her elderly mother and young daughter, had come straight from Mariupol, on the southern edge of Ukraine's war-ravaged Donetsk Oblast. They would spend the night at the center and then, the next day, take a one-way flight to Israel, where they plan to live forever more.
"Sure, we are very sad to go and leave our friends behind. It's all very sad," the woman said, as her mother wept silently into her sleeve. "It's fear and thinking about the future of our children."
Had she ever been to Israel? No. So why move there now? The woman shrugged. Her husband's ancestors were Jewish, she said. "We saw an opportunity and we decided to use it."
In 2015, some 7,500 Jewish people left Ukraine for Israel: up from 6,000 in 2014, and following many years when the flow from Kiev to Jerusalem was little more than a trickle. Most fled from the conflict-ridden east of the country: first westwards, and then across the Black Sea to Tel Aviv.
Along the way, thousands passed through one of several newly and quietly constructed Jewish transit centers. For the Israel-bound migrants themselves, these shelters are primarily of practical import: modest buildings on modest streets where they can receive shelter and food and the occasional Hebrew class. For the volunteers who staff them, the centers are something more consequential; they are pieces of a larger, Israel-led mission to rescue Ukrainian Jews — and thus, more broadly, a reinforcement of Israel's raison d'être, as a refuge for Jews in peril.
In some instances, these temporary shelters are funded by local Jewish communities who want to aid their down-and-out coreligionists. Last summer, for instance, the Kiev-based Rabbi Moshe Azman announced plans to build a $6 million "Jewish refugee community" outside the capital, which he dubbed "Anatevka" — also the name of the fictional czarist Russian village in the Tony Award-winning Broadway musical Fiddler on the Roof. (In the play's final act, the genial Jewish milkman Tevye and his daughters are forced to flee Anatevka, as part of an expulsion of Jewish people from the region.)
But sometimes, the funding comes straight from Israel itself — and the centers are meant to serve as pitstops for Ukrainians on their way to the Jewish Holy Land. The red brick shelter outside Dnepropetrovsk is funded by the Jewish Agency for Israel: a quasi-governmental organization based in Jerusalem whose mission is to "connect Jews with Israel, with one another, with their heritage, and with our collective future" — and which runs joint immigration programs with the Israeli government. The agency claims to have facilitated the immigration of more than three million Jews since 1929.
Late last year, I travelled to eastern Ukraine to meet with Natan Sharansky, the chairman of the Jewish Agency, who had flown over from Jerusalem to oversee the organizations efforts in the area. It was biting cold as we drove slowly through Dnepropetrovsk: an industrial city that holds about 15 percent of Ukraine's Jewish population, which altogether is the third largest in Europe. In the 1940s, some 20,000 Jewish people were murdered in and around Dnepropetrovsk, during Germany's occupation of the country.
Watch the VICE News documentary: Fleeing Eastern Ukraine: Europe's Jewish Exodus:
Outside the Jewish Agency center, a few men and women stood in heavy jackets. In pairs, they had been assigned to small, simple bedrooms, where they would pass their final days and hours before leaving Ukraine. Many had never left the country before.
Under Israel's Law of Return, anyone with recent Jewish ancestry — even a single grandparent will do — can qualify for full Israeli citizenship. And by some estimates, up to 200,000 Ukrainians are eligible. Immigration, in turn, comes with a load of hard benefits, paid for by the Israeli government: a free one-way flight to Tel Aviv, cash hand-outs, tax cuts and mortgage breaks.
"I was caught in shellfire," one old man from Donetsk told me, sitting on the edge of his assigned bed in Room 8. "I saw a woman blown apart and a man was killed... I have lived here for so many years and then bang!" The man said that he had never been to Israel before. But decades ago, his grandmother used to tell that God spread Jewish people across the globe and that, one day, he would collect them again.
A grandmother says goodbye to her grandchildren, hours before they depart for Israel.
In another room, a woman named Natasha was pacing restlessly. She and her husband had been at the facility for two months, she said — but they hadn't yet been moved to Israel, because Natasha hadn't been able to definitely prove that she carries Jewish blood. The Jewish Agency asked for documents, she said, and she didn't have any.
"How to explain?" Natasha pulled at her hair, which was dyed a bright copper and cut short like a helmet. "My parents were not married. You know why? My father didn't want us to be considered Jewish and treated like Jews." As a result, Natasha didn't have a marriage certificate proving that her parents were married, and that she was the biological daughter of her Jewish father. Now, the Jewish Agency is helping her to undergo DNA testing — to confirm that she is genetically linked to a Jewish half-sister who has lived in Israel for 20 years.
"I have no complaints," Natasha said wearily, when I said goodbye and wished her well. "I like it here."
One building over from Natasha's bedroom, in a small cafeteria, a cluster of Jewish Agency employees sat around a table, sipping hot tea out of thin plastic cups. This new wave of migration began in mid-2014, Sharansky told me — when fighting in eastern Ukraine kicked off. More than a million people have been forced from their homes.
Back in Israel, Sharansky, who was himself born in Ukraine, decided that Israel must get involved. Jewish people were in danger and Israel could help — by setting up shelters and actively encouraging immigration. In the spring of 2014, the Jewish Agency started a hotline for Ukrainian Jews who were interested in learning about Israel.
A family from Mariupol arrives at a Jewish Agency centre in Dnepropetrovsk, Ukraine.
Until that moment, said Max Lurye, head of the Jewish Agency's Dnepropetrovsk office, many Ukrainian Jews in the region hadn't given much thought to their Jewishness. "It wasn't interesting for [them]... Only now, when the situation is very hard, firstly [they] think and understand that because of being Jews, [they] have a place that is ready to take care of [them]."
And here's the rub. In recent months, the thousands of Jewish people who have left Ukraine for Israel have been touted in Israel press releases that celebrate the increased numbers of people leaving Europe for the Jewish homeland. Almost 7,500 Ukrainians arrived to live in Israel in 2015, according to the Jewish Agency, a 230 percent rise on 2013 figures. Altogether last year than 31,000 people from across the globe moved to Israel, it says, a 12-year high.
But Ukraine doesn't quite fit the rest of the continent's story. Many French and Western European Jews who choose to make Aliyah — the Hebrew term for immigration to Israel — cite increased anti-Semitism, or the threat of anti-Semitic terrorism, as inspiration.
But none of the Ukrainians I spoke to so much as mentioned anti-Semitism. Rather, they told me that life is bad in Ukraine — and that they are moving to Israel because it's their only viable way out. Israeli organizations, in turn, have recognized this situation as an opportunity and are making sure that one-way, all-expenses-paid tickets from eastern Ukraine to Ben Gurion Airport are in ample supply.
"In 2014 we were reminded: a crisis for the global Jewish people could happen at any time," writes the Jewish Agency, on its website. "As conflict raged in eastern Ukraine, the Jewish Agency rose to the challenge of spiriting Jewish displaced persons to safety and bringing them home to Israel."
It's not that anti-Semitism is absent from the Ukraine war. This is Eastern Europe, after all, where history runs shallow and where modern-day conflicts often drag up pre-modern anxieties about Jewish people and their influence. In fact, actors on both sides of the current civil war have flirted with anti-Semitic language and Nazi symbolism — and, at the same time, have accused the other side of scapegoating Jews. Each side has, paradoxically, declared itself the true protector of Ukraine's Jews.
Soon after the "Euromaidan" protests kicked off in 2013 — bringing thousands out into the streets of Kiev, to demand closer relations with Europe and to oppose President Viktor Yanukovych's increasingly burdensome concessions to Moscow — observers grew uneasy about the presence of fringe firebrands amidst the pro-democracy crowds. Namely, their focus turned to the Svoboda Party, which is alternatively described as neo-fascist or radically nationalist — and whose supporters garnered attention for waving an older version of their flag, which rather resembles a Nazi swastika.
Many worried that the pro-democracy revolt would be soured by extremism — and that heightened patriotism would invariably descend into Jew-baiting and anti-Semitism. Jerusalem Post reporter Sam Sokol recounted an incident in Kiev 2014, in which he picked up a Svoboda flag, as a souvenir, and then forgot that he was carrying it: "I walked into the office of a Jewish organization still holding it and the secretary started screaming; she thought a pogrom was starting." Svoboda's popularity has since waned.
More recently, anti-Semitic slurs have been heard at rallies in the west of the country. At an anti-government demonstration in Kiev in November, one organizer reportedly lamented that a so-called "world Zionist conspiracy" was swallowing Ukraine: a reference to a conspiracy theory which claims that Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko is secretly Jewish. Another speaker, the activist Alexander Borozenets, reportedly accused Israel of trying "to settle Israel here."
Many Ukrainians who go to Israel have never left the country before, or even been on a plane.
From the start of the war, a few local Jewish communities took action in anticipation of a Jewish backlash. In February 2014, Kiev's Rabbi Moshe Azmancalled on Jewish people "to leave the city center or the city all together and if possible the country too... I don't want to tempt fate." In September of that year, several hundred Jews fled the coastal city of Mariupol by chartered bus.
But many within Ukraine's extended Jewish population feel somewhat immune to this panic — because they themselves don't feel very Jewish at all.
Decades ago, under Communist rule, religious practice in Ukraine was all but extinguished, as part of a concerted state campaign to do away with religion. Religious assets were nationalized and religious councils disbanded. Ukraine's Jewish community — long subject to state-level discrimination and merciless street-level pogroms — quickly moved underground. Many Ukrainian Jews married non-Jews and, over the years, let go of their faith.
In early December, I went to visit a family that had been shaped by this history. Tatyana and Pavel were living with their six children in the small town of Polohy, in southeast Ukraine, about two hours' drive from Mariupol. The town is identical to nearby towns: tiny and nondescript — its front lawns brown and dry, its trees bare, its pockmarked roads filled with oily puddles. When I arrived, the family stood to greet me, and assembled stiffly by the door. In the back, on the coffee table, Tatyana had laid out a spread of food: spongy sausage on white bread, ripe tangerines, and milk chocolates. Plastic suitcases were stacked in an adjacent room, and a teary grandmother sat dabbing her eyes on the couch.
The family was making final preparations for their flight to Israel. It would be the first flight that any of them had ever taken. "We are worried and nervous," said Pavel, holding his youngest son.
None of Tatyana and Pavel's children have ever been further than a three-hour drive from their village in eastern Ukraine.
I asked if he thought he would feel safer in Israel. "Generally speaking, they have wars over there too," he said softly. "There is nothing scary about wars. We go there for our children to have a future. I can see that for the next 10 or 15 years they won't have a future in Ukraine. There is no work, nothing."
And have they always felt Jewish? Tatyana spoke carefully. She said that one of her grandfathers had been Jewish — and that this link qualified the whole family for Israeli passports. But they definitely were not Jewish. "We are religious people. We go to church. We always had a Bible at home," she explained — adding that if there had been a synagogue in her town, she might have gone there too.
A few hours later, the family piled into a large van and drove off to Dnepropetrovsk Airport. Just before they left, some neighbors gathered in the street to see them off. Some of them cried. And almost instinctively, the crowd gathered in a huddle and, together, whispered a Christian prayer.
In recent months, a small cottage industry has popped up to serve this very clientele: Ukrainians with Jewish roots who have not practiced Judaism for years, if ever — and who thus need evidence of their Jewish bona fides to gain entry to Israel. The Shorashim program, for instance, opened last year, with offices in Dnepropetrovsk and Kyiv. It helps Ukrainians find archival evidence of their Jewishness: in far-away attics, or dusty state archives, or Red Cross files from the post-WWII period.
Tatyana and her children wave goodbye to their neighbours in the eastern Ukrainian town of Polohi.
On the ground, these programs can make Israeli offers of help seem somewhat arbitrary and capricious. Within a single village, it might be that only a handful of residents are eligible for Israel-funded refuge — offered by a far-away stranger Jerusalem who is acting to preserve a single bloodline that the Ukrainian in question never even knew he carried. Help is deeply appreciated by those who receive it. But non-Jews need not apply.
I asked Max Lurye, the Jewish Agency's Dnepropetrovsk officer, whether non-Jewish people ever pretend to be Jewish, in the hopes of getting a free flight out of town. "You're right," he said. "Sometimes people come."
A year and a half after Ukraine's civil war kicked off, ceasefires continue to be made and broken in the east of the country. And the numbers moving to Israel continue to rise. Several Ukrainians told me that they would rather take their chance on perennial conflict and perpetual strife in Israel than remain captive to an unpredictable hot war in their homeland. Their choice is a sort of contradiction — but one that is supported by free airfare and substantial cash incentives.
One evening late last year, the Jewish Agency gave a series of presentations in Dnepropetrovsk, to group of Ukrainian Jews who hadn't quite made up their minds about Aliyah. The sessions were held at the city's Menorah Center: a massive, 450,000 square foot, 22-story complex that is said to be the largest Jewish community center in Europe. It was partly funded by the Ukrainian billionaire Igor Kolomoisky, who is also personally backing the famously under-equipped Ukrainian Army in its war against Russia-backed rebels. Haaretz, the Israeli newspaper, has described the Menorah Center as "a middle finger to the Communists and Nazis who tried to exterminate the local Jewish community."
Sharansky, who was the keynote speaker, looked exhausted after an early-morning flight and a day of back-to-back meetings. But he spoke with the calm authority of a CEO on autopilot: addressing a crowd of several dozen Jewish (or, Jewish enough) professionals.
"I want to understand one thing," one man, who looked to be in his 30s, charged. "Considering what is going on around Israel's borders, with Syria, Egypt, Lebanon... Does it affect Israeli's lives? There is a war all around?"
"There are terror attacks," Sharansky shrugged. "But they can't be compared to what was happening 12 years ago, when they blew people in busses up." The crowd nodded.
On the walls lining the classroom, glossy programs advertised life in Israel. "Just think how many generations stand before you," said Sharansky, pacing as he spoke. "They dreamed, thought, prayed and now your moment has come."
Follow Katie Engelhart on Twitter: @katieengelhart
All photos via VICE News